Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Real Mystery Behind THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

by Michelle Gagnon

So I just got back from vacation. I finally had some free reading time, and decided to see what all the fuss was about Steig Larsson's Millenium series. I'll try to write this post without any spoilers.

I must confess, I remain perplexed.

This series has been the biggest crime fiction crossover, arguably, since THE DA VINCI CODE.

There, I could understand the hype. The writing wasn't the best I've ever read, but Dan Brown is a heck of a storyteller, and the underlying religious conspiracy themes were compelling.

To be frank, I spent most of my time reading TGWTDT scratching my head. I honestly don't get it. The dialogue was clunky throughout, the bulk of the story revolved around a financial scheme that was underwhelming, and the characters were fairly two-dimensional. And above all that, the resolution of one of the two primary plots was largely unsatisfying. Now, some of the fault here might lie with the translator. But then most of the copies sold have been translations into one language or another. So why did this, of all books, become a runaway bestseller?

I read the next two books, and they were decidedly better. There was actually action- hallelujah- and the themes outlined in the first installment came to fruition. The characters developed some depth (although based on Larsson's portrayal, the men in Sweden either love women to death, or are misogynistic to the point of credulity, which I found annoying).

Still- all in all, I'd rank the books in the mid-range of works I've read in the past year. They weren't bad, as a whole, but they weren't fantastic either.

So what's the big deal? Was it the tragic backstory of Larsson's untimely demise that kicked the marketing machine into overdrive? I haven't read many of his fellow countrymen, but from what I understand some of their works are superior. So why did these become the books that people who never read thrillers suddenly embraced with their book clubs? Especially since none of the books was particularly literary. And the characters weren't what one would usually expect the mainstream to embrace. We had a couple that was involved in a extramarital affair that was accepted by all parties involved (including the cuckolded husband), and a main character who was a Goth/punk Aspergers hacker. Interesting, but not the type of main character I'd expect the world as a whole to cheer for.

If someone would care to enlighten me, I'd be much obliged.


19 comments:

  1. Michelle, I'm reading TGWTDT right now wondering the same thing. I'm about halfway through, and the title girl has been in about 10% of the story. If the story had been about only Mikael Blomkvist, the other hero, I don't think the book would be the phenomenon that it is. Lisbeth Salander is the real attraction, and I think it's because the book is partly a wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy. I know I was cheering for Lisbeth when she got back at the men who done wronged her. To me, that part of the book has a Thelma and Louise vibe to it. The mystery that Mikael solves is long and doesn't involve any action whatsoever (at least at the 56% mark on my Kindle), and I find myself restlessly waiting until Lisbeth makes a reappearance. I think 25% of the book could have been cut without losing anything worthwhile.

    When I reach the end, I'll decide whether I'll go on to the final two books, but so far the story isn't compelling me to do so.

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  2. Holy Tattoo, am I glad I read your post, Michelle. I read TGWTDT (or to be more accurate, I skimmed it because I kept dozing off after about twenty minutes) and figured I slept through the parts that had made this book an international bestseller. I did read The Girl Who Played With Fire and it was better, although as thrillers go, I agree, it was still only mid-range. That's enough of that series for me. There are still too many great books to read.
    Thanks for the post.

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  3. I didn't make it to the end and was so glad I borrowed it from the library and didn't pay for it.
    Needless to say I didn't move on to the next two.

    Mary
    Giggles and Guns

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  4. I wondered the same thing. Or as I put it myself: I. Just. Don't. Get. It.

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  5. I constantly quote William Goldman's axiom about Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything."

    No one knows why one book hits the jackpot like this one, because if they did they could replicate it. No one really knows why this book hits while another that is seemingly better on every level does not.

    As writers, we simply have to write our best books, to get them a shot on the "wheel of fortune." After that, it's all up to the spin.

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  6. I loved it: the girl, the isolated feel of the island, the crime. But I figured out early on that the books were bloated with financial/political stuff. So I skimmed or skipped everything related to the trial and Wennerstrom. And the prologue was so beautiful and compelling that it pulled me through until we got to the exciting bit.

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  7. The old saw, "There's no accounting for taste" is a saw for a reason. This is the part about art that fascinates me--the X-Factor.

    I judged a mystery award contest last year, and I was astonished at the level of disagreement that flourished among my fellow judges and I. What one of us would put on the table as a number-one favorite would often as not be dissed by one of the others as either too literary or too commercial. Too violent or too cozy.

    As the one who is always right, I found it very frustrating that others believed that they, too, were always right when clearly they were wrong.

    Dan Brown is a lightning rod for this kind of dissent. I loved ANGELS AND DEMONS. I was captivated by the behind-the-scenes [ficitonal] look at the Vatican and the College of Cardinals, and was willing to forgive some preposterous action sequences. (If I recall, Langdon uses a table cloth or some such thing as a parachute in one scene.) For others, the preposterousness was a deal-breaker.

    For me, TGWTDT falls into the same category as COLD MOUNTAIN. People whom I respect love both books, but for the life of me, I don't see how.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  8. See the movie version of TGWTDT. It cuts out a lot of the financial scandal and moves along at a pretty good clip. It was one of the rare cases where I liked the movie better than the book.

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  9. I may just get it from the library instead of buying it. Well eventually. lol

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  10. I've heard that the film is good. My only reservation is the scene between Salander and her "guardian." I really don't want to experience that visually-and I can't imagine they managed to leave it out.

    The next two are definitely better, Boyd- more action, and a much quicker pace. Plus Salander really takes the center stage. I did enjoy her character- but I guess my larger point is, I wouldn't really expect these characters to appeal to such a wide audience. And on top of everything else, Larsson broke a fairly ironclad crime fiction rule by killing a cat.

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  11. My mum thought it was a real page turner...and I've just downloaded it onto my iPad. Once I've read it I guess I'll have to weigh in - for now though I think it's just one of those mysterious 'alignment of the planet things'. It was the same with Twilight (though I admit the first book hooked me in). I couldn't even finish the DaVinci code...so clearly I'm no judge of what makes a bestseller!

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  12. I had absolutely no interest in reading TGWTDT as the words "interational bestseller" have the same level of attraction to me as "Oprah selection". But then I saw the Swedish film on a whim (partially because I figured it has to be better than the upcoming American version). I really liked it; I thought it was very good, not great, but definitely engrossing. I found the Lisbeth Salander character intriguing, and I liked how the plot came together. I wanted more. I immediately went and bought the book (and at 12.30 on a Saturday night this was no easy feat). But the book....yikes! I just wanted to go through it with a Big Red Pen. That sucker needs some serious editing. Were they all afraid to cut his precious words - even all the incredibly dull and unecessary parts because he was dead? IMHO 300 pages of it could go and it would be a much tauter story.

    MG - Yes, the "uncomfortable" scenes you are afraid of with LS and her guardian are in the Swedish film, but they are incredibly powerful and integral to the development of that character. I simply can't imagine TGWTDT without them - or an alternative way of developing the LS character, although I doubt the US version will have those scenes, and if they do they won't be at that same level of brutality and vulnerability.

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  13. With you on this one Michelle. I fell for the hype (and the cover) and was blown away by how far the reading experience fell short of expectation. How can any book as bloated with backstory as this be called a "fast-paced thriller"? (My husband began rolling his eyes as I repeatedly growsed, "I'm on page 50/80/100 and nothing has happened yet!") I would have put it down if I hadn't been so curious when/if things would get better (ans: eventually, but not by much). Mediocre writing and sorely in need of vigorous editing. I'm baffled, and believe the cover designer deserves much of the credit.

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  14. Sorry, Michelle, I can't help you. I thought DRAGON TATTOO was the most overrated book I've ever read. Not the worst, just the most overrated. Larson's greatest talent as a writer seems to be a gift for spending too much time on things that don't merit it, and not enough time on things that do.

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  15. The Heath brothers released a book a few years back called MADE to STICK. In it they detail what makes ideas stick dubbed their SUCCESs Model:

    Simple
    Unexpected
    Concrete
    Credible
    Emotional
    Story

    I've not read the book or seen either version of the movie, but I have heard of it and am glad Michelle blogged about her experience.

    So, here's my stab at applying the SUCCESs model to why this book is a bestseller.

    I think a good bit of the hype has to do with just the name of the book: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

    The title itself is simple - we know what it's about. (Or we think we do. The comments above reveal that at least in the first book the namesake Girl isn't much involved.)

    It's unexpected. Boys get flashy, dangerous tattoos. A girl with one? That's unexpected.

    It's concrete. The words and definite and clearly evoke a mental image. Girl, Tattoo, Dragon.

    The "Credible" concept is hard to apply to fiction. It overlaps with "Concrete" in my understanding. It's the vivid details (the mental image evoked by the words) and surely the cover art adds to this. (I wonder if this has hurt electronic sales since there is no cover art...hmm... This is an interesting way to objectively verify the theory though I can't imagine the effect would be great...)

    Emotional. Think about it. A girl. With a tattoo. Of a dragon. Doesn't that evoke something more than just an unexpected image? Dragon and Tattoo are emotively packed words. They scream their connotations: bad girl, rough life, eastern influence, mystery... It doesn't get much more emotional in only six words.

    Lastly, and most importantly, story. There is technically no story in the six words of the title. They are a phrase and no more. However, being that this is a book title there is the *promise* of a story.

    Thus people buy. And they recommend it to their friends before actually reading said book or watching said movie. Because the *title* is sticky.

    Perhaps we could all learn a lot from Stieg Larsson and the Heath brothers about properly formulating a title. It may be more important than even the 25-word summary.

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  16. I think the cover art was genius, and definitely helped. Overrated is the word for the series as a whole.
    Interesting, D Smith, I'd never heard of that but it's a great formula.

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  17. I really enjoyed the 'head scratching' post - very good, and wonderful that we all have different viewpoints.

    The key is that, for whatever reason, even people who have been put off by it, have read it, bought it discussed it.

    This is a 'watercooler book', a book that has borken through into the mainstream, where ever non-readers have been forced to read.

    One area that I think is key to its sucess is that at Dinner parties, poeple talk about it, but no one wants to talk about the dreadful scene between Salander and her Guardian....it's something that people hint at, but don't talk about, hence human nature being what it is, provokes curiousity.

    It's a good book to get people reading, which can only be good for the beleagured publishing industry.

    Larsson you have left your mark on the world, and you got people reading again

    Ali

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  18. Put me down as another one who fell for the marketing but scratched his head trying to figure out why this book was so captivating.

    I won't read the sequels.

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  19. I'm so glad I found this post. I couldn't get over how two dimensional the characters were, and in particular, the bad guys. And page after page of red herrings. Why do people think that's clever? How did this book become ubitiqous???

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